Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Screwtape And Heaven On Earth

"The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unraveling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the Earth....So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven, that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to Earth is to make them believe that Earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or 'science' or psychology or what not."

C.S. Lewis

Screwtape, Letter XXVIII

Monday, September 15, 2014

God Shows No Partiality. Neither Should We.

Part of the simple logic of the Christian faith flows from the nature of God. God reveals himself to
have certain qualities, and since his people belong to him, they ought to begin displaying the same qualities.  At a crucial point in the life of the early church, the typically heavy-footed Peter came face to face with this logic when he entered the home of Cornelius the Roman Centurion.

Peter had been raised, along with all his Jewish brothers and sisters, to believe that Gentiles were beneath them and the Romans were oppressors who needed to go.  But one afternoon he was praying on a rooftop on the shore of the Mediterranean when God began to change that. While he was staying in the home of a leather maker (an ironic twist in the story seeing that the job of leather making made one unclean), God put him in a trance and showed him a sheet full of unclean animals.  When God told him to rise and eat, Peter responded out of his upbringing and faithfulness to Old Testament Law. “Never,” he said. “I have not eaten anything unclean and I won’t start now.”  But God’s response is what changes things.  God told him to never call anything unclean, or common, that he has called clean.

At that moment an envoy from Cornelius shows up at the house where Peter is staying and asks him to come.  God told Cornelius to send for Peter.  God told Peter to go. God was up to something big.  As soon as Peter enters the house of the Roman Centurion something strikes him as so important he repeats the topic twice in a short span of time. He says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29). And then, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

Peter was raised to show a harsh partiality.  He was raised with a strict “us vs. them” ethic and now God was teaching him something very different.  He was taught to see people like Cornelius as beneath the honor of his presence and on this day Peter brings a whole group of Jewish Christians into his house to fellowship, eat with him, and talk about Jesus.  Peter came face to face that day with a truth woven into the bones of the Christian faith: no human being is unclean.  Every human being is of inestimable value. Every human being is worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No human being is beneath a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The logic is clear – no human being is beneath Jesus Christ, the God who emptied himself and became flesh. Thus, no human being is “less than” any other human being, and certainly not “less than” a follower of Jesus Christ. And every human life can become something that glorifies its Savior, Jesus Christ.

And why is it no human is beneath another in the eyes of God? It is by virtue of our creation in the image of God, and, as God told Peter, God has called every human clean. In other words, our status measured in earthly or ethnic terms does not determine our worth. The creation and decision of God does. No human lacks the image of God. No human is unclean.

One of the radical beliefs a Christian carries into this world is that God does not show partiality.  For all of its bluster about equality and human rights, our culture loves to decide who is and who is not worthy of life and privilege.  Our culture loves building ladders out of people. The abortion rate for children diagnosed with Down Syndrome is 94%. In a now infamous study, the abortion rate for African-American children in the city of Manhattan is over 80%. Children are still sold as slaves on the streets of Western, advanced cities. Political schemes rely on dividing people into groups that suspect and hate each other. Politicians have become wealthy beyond reason stoking those fires. And we all know the story goes on, and on.

But the Christian belongs to another God, a different kind of God. One who does not show partiality. God does not draw distinctions between people, calling one better than another.  And thus, by the grace and strength of God, neither do we.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Weddings: A Reflection

As a pastor I have the privilege of performing all kinds of weddings for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.  This afternoon Heather and I sat at a reception table watching all the first dances, and a few things began to dawn on me. A wedding – the formal act of a man and woman dedicating themselves to each other – in whatever form it happens has been common among humans across all cultures since the dawn of, well, humanity. It brings families from every possible background together in the same room as they celebrate the union of two lives.

Weddings build new things while extending the reach of the oldest things. A new family is made while the deep roots of old families push life into new limbs.

Weddings represent, maybe more often than we know, the hope of reclamation. Where the past has been imperfect, maybe deeply imperfect, there is the real chance of something healthy and stable being built. If the new home continues the dysfunction of the old ones, hope waits one more generation. Where the new home is dedicated to ways that build souls and love God, the cycle of pain can be broken.

Weddings are inescapably between a man and a woman. The two getting married came from the union of two other sets of men and women and they will likely build their family in the way their natures determine. Every other option available to us is either a technological marvel or a societal novelty, but they all are thin shadows of how humans have built families for millennia. None of them replace the nature God has given us all.

Research and, more importantly, theology and history are on the side of men and women getting married and building families. Children need moms and dads.  Men need women and women need men. Kids thrive with grandparents. Families can be beautiful for their sheer expanse and life shaping in their extended intimacy.

Those who seek to expand and change the definition of marriage are in the smallest minority possible.  They not only find themselves in the minority now, they find themselves swimming against the tide of all human experience. All their ancestors are against them. Every example against man and woman marriage is the epitome of the anecdote – it only proves how universal the rule is.

And most importantly weddings are how God shows his absolute joy in humanity. He began the institution. Jesus made really good wine at one. It predates every other human organization and is thus more important than them all. It is how God encourages us to make more of us, and in this he delights. God loves that new human smell.

God created us to not only be together, but to be together for the expanse of our earthly lives. In that commitment we find stability, hope, and joy. Sexual promiscuity is soul soiling. One of the great testimonies one human can leave to another is life-long commitment to their spouse through all kinds of thick and thin.

And in them God is able to show how his love for us works.  There is emotion, heart-felt connection and even romance.  But over the long run there is love. This love is truly what love is. You can tell who and what you love by what you have committed yourself to over the long-haul.  You can tell by your sacrifices. You can tell by why you endure what you endure. This is often myself, but it can be, and ought to be, the one you married. And when there is this kind of love we begin to glimpse the love God has for people he created. People he adores and put his image in. People he sent his Son to live among and die for. Broken people he reaches out to over and over.

Weddings bear the promise of God’s love among us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Responding to Cultural Change

In light of cultural shifts like the derecognizing of InterVarsity Campus Ministries by Cal State, I
think it is crucial that Christians in the American and Western world give serious thought to their place in a shifting landscape. The recent events with IV are only the latest in what could be a long list of cultural changes going on around and underneath us.  But as one wise man once told me, I am a Christian, therefore I have hope.

These changes are not reasons to grow angry or defensive, but become new and potentially powerful opportunities for Christians to follow Christ with more clarity than before and for the Church to rise up and be the difference it is supposed to be.  I think it is entirely possible that the American church has relied on its cultural position of strength for too long and has thus been caught a bit off its guard as the cultural shift away from Christian values picks up steam. So, to begin with, we need to rethink our relationships with cultural power structures.

This is a massive issue and one that I think deserves a lot of attention, so here are two very quick thoughts.

Christians and Cultural Power
In the past 35 years, conservative Christians have been very active in politics, creating what might be the most influential political movement in that time.  The hope was that movements like the Moral Majority would produce the kind of change in the halls of power that would preserve Christian values and act as a kind of influence on the rest of it.  Its actual effects are debatable.  However, at the same time we have sorely neglected other places of power that turn out to be far more influential than the evangelical world once believed.

The halls of education, from Pre-K to Doctoral Programs, are the cultural canaries of our time.  Do you want to know what lawyers, journalists, and movie producers will be thinking 10-20 years from now?  Take a look at their college curriculum and professors today.

The art world has become a bit of a joke to everyone but those buried within it, in large part because of the loss of transcendent values and the belief in anything beyond this world and immediate experience.  This part of our culture is more influential than many would expect, and needs a re-injection of the beliefs and values that made Western Art beautiful centuries ago.

Whether or not the Christian knows it, within their belief system is the understanding that the Kingdom of God is the most powerful kingdom on earth right now.  That deserves a little explanation.  Most Christians, by virtue of their cultural sensitivities, are under the impression that the things this world calls power are real or actual power. There is no doubt that guns and economic policies wield a certain kind of power in the world, but every time they wield themselves against the Church, the Church wins. The Church, when appropriately dislodged from state powers, does not enforce itself through guns and money.  Yet, when the guns and money of this world are turned against the Church, the state loses every time. How can this happen?

The Church has access to God’s kind of power and when it wields it well, nothing overcomes it. Christians need to learn to have their vision of power changed in order to comprehend and live in the kind of power given to them by God.  Jesus’ disciples once asked him if it was time to restore the kingdom to Israel.  This was a question about earthly power, and full of their expectation that Jesus’ power was of that kind.  His answer is essentially, “God will decide when that kind of power will be unleashed. You will receive power, but not that kind of power.”  He actually said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  They received plenty of power, but none of them filled the halls of government.

Christians and churches will need to readjust their vision of culture and their role within in it while all the props we were accustomed to are pulled out from underneath us. This is not time for panic, but for renewed focus on discipleship and the Kingdom of God among us.

When Non-Discrimination is Discrimination

Recently the Cal State University system derecognized InterVarsity as an official campus organization.  According to their non-discrimination policy, IV would be required to allow and/or have non-Christians in their leadership and IV has refused to sign the appropriate documentation.  As a result IV, and other Christian campus organizations such as Chi Alpha, no longer have free access to campus rooms and resources and are not recognized as official campus clubs.  According to the way the Cal State system has enforced its non-discrimination policies, other campus organizations such as Greek, academic, and sports clubs, are still allowed to discriminate along lines pertinent to their mission and membership.

All of this is, of course, in the name of non-discrimination.  Ironic, isn’t it, that a Non-Discrimination policy has created some very targeted exclusion from the public square.  With a case like this what we have is pretty naked discrimination masking itself as non-discrimination.

Non-Discrimination policies are allegedly intended to keep organizations from unfairly choosing against people, likely for bad or ad hominem reasons.  In their simpler forms they are intended to keep people from having their feelings hurt for not being able to be a part of some group.  What the Cal State policy has done is discriminate against Christian organizations and exclude them from the fraternity of campus organizations.  And many foresee that if this policy is carried to its logical extreme, most all campus organizations will be similarly affected.

In addition, the philosophy behind the non-discrimination policy is far from neutral or valueless.  It may be assumed that these policies, given their name and all, do not impose a set of social values but instead keep other, badder, people from imposing theirs.  However, just a few moments of reflection tell a different story.  The belief that Christian campus groups MUST have or allow non-Christians to run their organizations, is a value – a belief about the moral rightness or wrongness of an idea.  The value may be simply stated something like, “on a diverse campus, it is better for Christian organizations to be forced to admit non-Christian leaders than to allow them to have their way and not allow them.”  That is a value statement.  And it has been effectively imposed in a coercive way. 

I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot safer.

As a side note, many public college campuses are quickly becoming the least likely places to hear or be able to express opinions that do not cohere with the reigning conventional wisdom.  More irony, indeed.

In the end, these non-discrimination policies have done nothing but impose anti-Christian values on Christians and in public arenas for a lot of transparent and illogical reasons.  So be it.  I think the real question is something like, “Now what?”

Next, let us wrestle with exactly that.

Friday, August 29, 2014

We Must Be Wiser Than This

If you get your information or analysis of the world from The Daily Show, you need to have enough sense to be embarrassed for yourself.  You either need to grow up and learn to absorb the world and important issues like a thoughtful adult, or you need to turn in your “I Learned How To Use My Frontal Lobes” card.

The world of politics is rife with things that ought to be made fun of and the line of political comedians is long indeed.  Much in political life should be laughed at.  ISIS should not be.  Brutality matching ancient Assyrian levels is not an appropriate place for mockery.  It just isn’t funny.

Whether or not ISIS is a clear and present danger to the American homeland is up for debate (but remember, that is what we thought about Al Qaeda before 9/11), but the level of evil being acted out by them should not be.  What also should not be up for debate is whether or not we are allowed to laugh at ISIS and the kinds of things they are doing.  It is morally inappropriate to make this kind of mockery of this kind of evil.  Laughing at it and making cheap jokes does not help anyone deal with the systematic slaughter of Christians and other religious minorities, and it does not help us put the YouTube beheadings in some kind of ‘big picture’.

Part of maturity – the growth of virtue in the human character – is learning what emotions are appropriate and inappropriate given the situation.  You do not laugh at funny cat videos during the funeral of a friend who committed suicide.  You do not weep at your loss to a friend when they are tremendously blessed and you are not.  Instead, you learn to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.

The Daily Show gets this profoundly wrong.  It is unable to tell the difference between things that ought and ought not be laughed at.  Stewart, though a very intelligent man, is not wise.  Maybe we can laugh with him from time to time at the absolute absurdity that is our political system, but we must be wiser than he is and learn when not to laugh.

I don't have the stomach to embed the video. Here is the link.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Clear Insight Into The Role Of Pastor

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989). 171 pages.
Eugene Peterson

Quite often when I read Eugene Peterson on pastoring I feel my blood pressure dropping and my spirit settling into the place it longs to be.  As a pastor I am subject to a lot of theories and expectations about what it means to do my job, and I suspect most of them are warmed-over corporate make-work that simply do not belong in my vocation.  Peterson, however, expresses with great experience and aplomb what it is like to try and be a good pastor.

When I sat down to open up "The Contemplative Pastor," I thought I would just read a couple of pages to get started and so did not have a pencil in hand.  I read the first sentence, put the book down, and returned with a pencil.  "If I, even for a moment, accept my culture's definition of me, I am rendered harmless."  I do not want to be harmless, but I suspect that is how many view me.  I knew then that if the rest of the book lived up to the promise of this first thought I was in for a marvelous read.

Peterson's goal in the book seems to be reshaping what we mean when we talk about the vocation of pastor.  What do we do? What makes us different from other people helping professions?  Is there anything different between the two, and if so, is there a way of recapturing it?  He begins with describing the pastor as "unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic."  And so the book goes, relabeling the pastor in ways that are not in-step with current cultural trends but which capture the significant, if hidden, vocation of pastor.  One particularly insightful passage near the end deals with the adolescence of our age and how that kind of immaturity has crept into even the pastor's life.

The first half of the book simply soars with insight and encouragement to be something different from what the world around us, and even within us, wants us to be.  At moments halfway through the book I thought the pastoral insight waned a bit, but overall it never really lost its subversive encouragement.  Throughout, Peterson moves expertly from discussing a theology of sin and what that does to our view of others, to the genuine expectations of a congregation, to the value of learning to use language well through reading and writing poetry.  There is a lot here to absorb and learn from.

The biblical role of pastor has been lost in our American and Western cultures, and therefore needs to be regained.  It is something of significant value in the lives of people, congregations, and communities and thus cannot be surrendered to corporate style leadership or nice-guy optics.  Peterson is a phenomenal guide back to the path we should be trodding.

If you found this review helpful, pleas say so on Amazon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Christian Theology, History, and Science

An area of significant debate in our culture right now is the relationship between the Christian faith and the scientific endeavor.  It is largely assumed in most non-Christian circles, and more and more within them, that the Christian faith is largely hostile to science.  It is said that science is a matter of knowledge and Christianity is a matter of faith, placing science on the higher pedestal.  And then, often, stories are trotted out to make the case that the Christian faith has historically been anti-science in one fashion or another.  But does this point of view do justice to both Christian history and theology?  I will deal with some of the basics - many of which will surprise readers - and leave the gory details to those who write book-length treatments of such things.

Christian Theology Has Been a Science Starter

One bumper sticker used in this debate is that Christianity is a "science stopper," basically meaning that the act of putting faith in God excludes someone from the act of engaging in science.  This view simply does not account for key components of Christian theology or the progress of science within the Christian church.  Christian theology was the fertile soil in which the scientific revolution took place.  Of course there are plenty of historical figures in science who were not Christian, but the foundation was built by Christian theology.  As the sociologist, Rodney Stark, puts it, "In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done."[i]

The celebrated philosopher Sir Alfred North Whitehead argued that Christianity was the mother of science because of the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.[ii]  The fundamental idea was that God the Creator is rational, so his creation is able to be studied with reliability and order can be discovered.  Others, like the scholar M.B. Foster, attribute this idea to the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of creation.  Unlike mythologies that have the universe beginning in chaos or struggle between gods, the Christian doctrine is one of simple creation by a law-giving God.

History Followed Theology

As a result, the history of science, especially early on, is littered with people driven into scientific discovery exactly because they believed they were able to and God wanted them to.  Instead of believing they were getting rid of the "God hypothesis," they believed they were honoring God with their intellects and abilities and would see him more clearly the more they learned.

Over 70% of the Royal Society of London, a society established in 1660 to promote the cause of science, was Puritans when it began.  Puritans were far less than 70% of the population of England at the time.  It was they who were the pioneers of the methodology of observation and inquiry.  Francis Bacon, seen by some as the "major prophet of the Scientific Revolution," once wrote, "There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error: first, the volume of the Scriptures, and then the volume of the Creatures."[iii]

Copernicus wrote that the universe was "wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator."[iv]  Galileo, whose story as it is popularly understood is largely oversimplified, was a devoted Christian even while he was put under pressure by forces within the church.  He was convinced that God was "a Divine Craftsman or Architect Who created the world as an intricate mechanism"[v] and could be studied to the glory of God.

Johannes Kepler was not shy about his investigations into astronomy and his God.  He wrote, "My wish is that I may perceive that God whom I find everywhere in the external world in like manner within me."[vi]

Isaac Newton is worth quoting at length from his General Scholium:

But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain'd the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form'd by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems.

These examples only scratch the surface of the pioneers of science who discovered science-forming and science-creating realities and simultaneously sought God with an open heart and open mind.  But these examples may suffice to make the simple point: there is no inherent conflict between believing in the God of the Christian faith and pursuing science in all its viable forms.

[i] Stark, Victory of Reason, (Random House, New York 2006), 14, emphasis his.

[ii] Alfred North Whitehead [1925]. Science and the Modern World. (Free Press, New York, 1967), 13.

[iii] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

[iv] Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science,(Crossway, Wheaton, Ill, 1994) 25

[v] Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science, 71

[vi] Kepler, quoted in Will Durant, The Age of Reason Begins (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 600